Few agency professionals publicly recognise the distinction; but only when they do, can true value be created for all parties
One of the many differences between agency life within the world of advertising and public relations is that, in the case of the latter, we don’t publicly exist. What I mean is, unlike advertising agencies, our particularities, our ambitions, our aspirations and interests are rarely discussed openly; and certainly never in front of the client. That would be considered inappropriate – PR agencies are limited to letting their work (or their clients) speak on their behalf.
In part, this is PR’s own making; we are an industry of fixers, influencers and shapers. The invisible hand operating behind the scenes of the world’s biggest conversations, debates, events, disruptions and conflicts. Behind-scene-scenes is our most comfortable and logical position.
The same is not the case for advertising, whose own brands can overshadow their clients; and whose creative and other agendas are never far from the surface. I remember witnessing a discussion a decade ago with a French advertising agency seeking approval for a creative treatment ‘for Cannes’ from a large US client. When the client requested supporting research data, the agency produced a list of award-winning campaigns from previous years, explaining how the treatment in question fulfilled all the criteria. The client – he had just arrived from the US – was expecting some alignment with the marketing brief, but the agency remained adamant that the treatment was legitimate on the basis that it was a ‘guaranteed Lion winner’ — for the agency, of course!
The above is a pretty extreme scenario – especially when the client realised that his firm was supposed to pay for the minimum display threshold for the advert to qualify for Cannes! But it illustrates a valid point that the PR industry has been slow to address the issue. PR firms – our owners, our management, our account servicing teams – have objectives and ambitions beyond servicing their particular client portfolios. It is naive and disingenuous to believe otherwise; and perilous — a business model based on simply executing client orders is a very precarious one!
I’m not suggesting that agency priorities are in conflict with those of their clients; but they are distinct. In addition to happy clients, agencies should aim to be delivering creative, innovative work, to win awards, to gain a reputation for progressive thinking, and producing campaigns that set them apart. This isn’t professional vanity, it’s pure survival. Such qualities are a tangible competitive advantage when recruiting the best staff, reducing attrition, and winning the best clients. An agency’s reputation is a tangible, quantifiable asset, in the same way as our clients’ brands; yet so many agencies don’t extend the logic.
The first step to addressing this blind spot is to, at least, recognise its existence. PR firms – even large ones – are hardwired to put their clients’ interests first. Quite right. But that doesn’t imply that their own interests should be neglected entirely. Clients are motivated by working with smart, proactive professionals; they want stable, happy account teams; and they hate paying above market rates for the privilege. Got it! Over the long term, agencies with a reputation for innovative work, which enjoy regular industry recognition and who are prepared to experiment, are more likely to attract the most dynamic staff —at a discount. A scenario that makes sense for all parties.
So, client and agency agendas are distinct, but they can still be compatible. Only by acknowledging the first point can the industry look to address the second. I believe, once again, we can learn from our more extrovert advertising cousins!